Peruvian poverty is seedbed for rebellion

LIMA, Peru (AP) — In the barren hillside cemetery on the edge of a Lima shantytown, rebel leader Nestor Cerpa’s grave is the only one covered with flowers — a little mound of color against a dusty brown backdrop.
“This person fought for the people — so they buried him with the poor,” said soft-drink peddler Mercedes Gutierrez, standing at the foot of Cerpa’s grave.
For Gutierrez, Cerpa and 13 other Tupac Amaru rebels killed in a successful commando raid to free the guerrillas’ 72 captives were fighting for a cause: bettering the lives of millions of impoverished Peruvians.
Peru’s people overwhelmingly supported the daring April 22 hostage rescue — seen by many as a triumph in President Alberto Fujimori’s campaign against the guerrilla violence that has bloodied the country for years. But grinding poverty and the widening gap between rich and poor make it unlikely that real peace will come to this Andean nation any time soon.
While the Tupac Amaru rebels and the larger, more ruthless Shining Path movement no longer draw large numbers of recruits and pose no real threat to the government, analysts say they still may attract enough support to survive for years to come.
Although the Cold-War mentality that helped fuel leftist revolutionary movements disappeared with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the social and economic conditions in underdeveloped nations such as Peru remain largely unchanged.
About 50 percent of Peru’s people live in poverty, and have little opportunity of escaping it.
In much of the rugged Andes highlands, Indian villagers live much as they did 500 years ago when Spanish conquistadors arrived. Corrugated metal roofs replaced traditional thatch, but the unplastered adobe brick and dirt floor are the same.
They eke out a living from the thin soil and do without electricity and running water. Nearly 70 percent of the people of the rural highlands are poor and 45.5 percent do not get enough to eat.
Figures are similar for the vast Amazon jungle, where rivers are the only links between squalid villages.
Those who move to the capital of Lima generally end up in the shantytowns that surround the city. Better housing is generally occupied by whites of European descent, who make up only about 15 percent of Peru’s population of 24 million.
Most of the 14 Tupac Amaru rebels in the hostage-taking at the Japanese ambassador’s mansion were impoverished young people from the country. They appeared to have little — if any — understanding of why they were there.
“One of them only wanted for President Fujimori to give him a van so he could use it as a taxi and for us to help him get his driver’s license,” said former hostage Gilberto Siura, a Peruvian congressman. “They were misled youths.”
Behind the tricks and false promises that Cerpa must have used to persuade the young people to join his assault was a “great feeling of frustration,” said Raul Gonzalez, an expert on the Tupac Amaru rebels.
“I suppose that in the jungle there must be many more youths from other families who in some way feel solidarity for those who have fallen,” Gonzalez said.
Fujimori argues that he has stabilized the Peruvian economy, attracted investment and brought water, lights, paving and new schools to many rural villages and the poorest shantytowns — his “vaccine against terrorists.”
Others say he has done little to address the core problem: lack of jobs and opportunity.
While unemployment officially is less than 10 percent, the government estimates that less than half the work force is fully employed. And investment is mostly in mining and oil exploration, which promises increased raw material exports but doesn’t produce many jobs.
“Not only does it not produce much employment, it doesn’t generate any employment in the cities, where the bulk of the population lives,” said Oscar Dancourt, an economist at Lima’s Catholic University.